Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Richard Lee Byers - Interview by SE

It is not intuitive to seek beauty in art deemed grotesque/weird, but most authors who produce horror/fantasy actually are usually (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven my strange muses.  These interviews engage contemporary authors & artists on the theme of  "Art &Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction".

Today we host author Richard Lee Byers, known for his Forgotten Realm contributions. He holds a Master's degree in Psychology and worked in an emergency psychiatric facility for over a decade, then left the mental health field to write. He is the author of more than fifteen books, including the lead book Dissolution (first book in the War of the Spider Queen series). Follow him on Facebook ( and on Twitter (

Richard Lee Byers has recently participated in interviews with (a) GdM Grimdark Magazine #12 and (b) one focused on his recent Sword & Sorcery release: This Sword For Hire. Other recent releases include The Shadow Guide, which is another and rather darker heroic fantasy book, and TheHep Cats of Ulthar and Other Lovecraftian Tales. You can findthose and all his work on Amazon. Here we’ll focus on his approach to making horror pleasing, reveal his muses for creating beautiful dark fiction.


1) SEL: Geographical Muses: One of my favorite Clark Ashton Smith tales is Genius Loci (1933) in which an artist, Amberville, turns mad when he paints a landscape that happens to embody the effigy of the land's deceased owner. Ghosts, and muses, can be geographic in nature. Noting that you were born in Columbus OH, which many Sword & Sorcery authors have roots (i.e., Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild ofAmerica members Andre Norton, John jakes, Roger Zelazny…), is there any evidence you have to support the crazy notion that Ohio localizes S&S muses? [sidebar: SEL has lived in OH since the 1980's and wishes for such a genius loci]. Perhaps you have memories of Ohio has haunted or inspired you? If not Ohio, another geography?

RLB: Alas, no. To the best of my recollection, there was nothing notably swashbuckling, barbaric, or eldritch about Ohio when I was growing up there. But I was fortunate enough to find a circle of friends who shared my enthusiasm for fantasy, SF, and horror. I imagine that played a role in my ending up as a genre writer.

2)  SEL: Early weird fiction masters like Edgar Allen Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft wrote letters and essays on “Beauty,” and they all generally espouse that beauty is not necessarily within art (i.e., a book or poem), but it is the conveyance of a feeling. Is there beauty in horror/weird fiction? Is there beauty in the repulsive?

RLB: Sometimes the repulsive is simply that. Realistic images of slaughter, torture, etc. sicken me as is, I imagine, the creator’s intention. But I think that when a horror story is based in the supernatural or some SF premise, there can be beauty even when something monstrous in being depicted. That’s because our curiosity, fascination, and sense of wonder are being engaged at the same time as our sense of dread.

3)  SEL: Do you have any “dark muses,” i.e., things that terrify/repulse you but you feel compelled to write about them.

RLB: I don’t know. Maybe not. I’m not fond of heights, and some of my more popular characters frequently fly the skies on griffon-back, but that experience isn’t portrayed in a way intended to scare. I am quite conscious of the dark side of human nature, our capacity for cruelty, selfishness, bigotry, fanaticism, etc., and many of my stories try to comment on that on one level or another, but my concern there is so general that I don’t know that it indicates I have a “dark muse.”

4)  SEL: You have a degree in psychology and worked in the mental health sector; how has this informed your writing (psychology of characters...and or readers expectations)?
RLB: I’ve been out of the mental health racket for a long time now, and today I seldom consciously think of personality theory and such when writing if, indeed, I ever did. But back in the day, I did interact with psychotic and sociopathic people on a daily basis, and I’m sure that getting a sense of who they were and how they viewed the world provided insights I still draw on when creating characters.

5)   SEL: Rorschach Test: What do you see? Ok, bear with me since this is question a game/gimmick of sorts. I wanted to reinforce your mental health background in a fun way. As a scientist who performs image analysis on data, I apply math on photos to quantify microstructure of materials. I took the liberty of processing two images you should be familiar with the content. Figured it would be interesting if you commented or interpreted this abstract version, and described what you see. There is no intention for any real psychological test, but figured this exercise may also reinforce your feelings on different perspectives.

Image 1: Guys hanging around the brothel parlor waiting for their turns.
Image 2: The faces of somewhat thuggish-looking twin brothers.

[See bottom for the image reveal! Very funny]

6)  SEL: Do you practice other arts beyond writing? If so can we share them (i.e., images of fine or graphic art) or mp3s (of music). Guess you could mention martial arts too.

RLB: I don’t paint, play music, etc. I did put in 25 years as a fencer (epee, mainly, although I fenced foil and sabre, too) and still think of myself as a fencer even though I haven’t been inside a salle in a while. I miss it, but my right knee is showing the wear and tear of catching my weight and momentum through 25 years of lunging. So, sadly, the more prudent course may be for me to just keep going to the gym three days a week.

7a) SEL: Forgotten Realms (a):  Writing dark fantasy that is acceptable for the young adult crowd requires balance; how does you go about presenting scary settings/events in fun ways?

RLB: Honestly, no editor ever said to me that Realms fiction was targeted at the YA market, and I didn’t think of it that way. I did have an understanding that the publisher didn’t want writers to go all XXX-rated or splatterpunk, so I didn’t. When it came to generating a sense of dread, I don’t think it cramped my style all that much.

If you look at the masters of classic horror, they depicted terrifying and even grisly events, but they rarely if ever went on for pages with detailed descriptions of torture, dismemberment, and what have you. Appeals to the reader’s sense of the uncanny and the depiction of the viewpoint character’s emotional response to the strange and threatening saw them through. I guess I tried to achieve similar results via similar methods.

7b) SEL: Forgotten Realms (b): If you were a Zulkir (master magician) what discipline would you practice (Evocation, Transmutation, Abjuration, Enchantment Illusion, Conjuration Necromacy, Divination)? Perhaps you have an RPG character for this.
Now that I’m not doing Forgotten Realms fiction anymore, I haven’t looked at my reference material in a while. Is Evocation the one where you throw fireballs and lightning bolts? Whichever one that is, that’s my pick. I don’t see how you can go wrong throwing fireballs and lightning bolts.

I’ve run some magic users in RPGs over the years. I don’t think I ever had one who specialized in one particular school of magic. But you can bet they all threw fireballs and lightning bolts.

7c) SEL: Forgotten Realms (c): Can you comment on Szass Tam's artistic flare (the necromancer character in the Haunted Lands Trilogy) and/or comment on the muses you drew upon for him?

RLB: I don’t recall thinking of Szass Tam as an artist per se, but in the trilogy, his goal is to destroy the universe and replace it with something better. I guess that would be the ultimate act of artistic creation if you want to look at it that way.

As far as how I portrayed him, well, he was a preexisting character in Forgotten Realms lore, which indicated he was a wily skull-faced undead master of the dark arts. To that, I added the idea that his ultimate goal was the destroying and rebuilding the universe thing.

If you look at all that, a skeletal undead villain out to kill everybody, you realize the potential for cliché, one-dimensional characterization, and portraying a guy who comes across as a virtual parody of the evil mastermind archetype. I tried to avoid that by resolving that Szass would never feel what a standard arch-villain would feel or do what a standard arch-villian would do unless the plot required it. So in the story, he doesn’t gloat or fly into rages and isn’t needlessly cruel. Rather, he forms friendships and shows mercy. He’s someone you might enjoy hanging out with if you didn’t know he was planning to obliterate you and everyone and everything you cared about.

7d)  SEL: Forgotten Realms (d): Please comment on the creative process when writing for shared worlds (Forgotten Realms) vs your individual work (i.e., featuring your character Selden in This Sword For Hire or Billy Fox in Blind God's Bluff).

RLB: To my mind, there are two main differences:

The first is expressed in the adage (if I knew who originally said it, I’d give credit, but I don’t)  “Don’t blow up the moon.” That means people other than you are working in the shared world and the owner of the IP intends it to generate product and revenue for a long time to come, so you can’t tell a story that would mess things up for everybody else.

Such a story doesn’t have to involve blowing up the moon, sinking a continent, etc. The issue can be subtler than that. Many shared worlds are built around fundamental conflicts and mysteries. If you’re already a fan of the shared world, resolving one of those conflicts or solving one of those mysteries may be the first story that occurs to you and one you’d be thrilled to tell. But it’s one you probably can’t tell because doing so would close out a part of the franchise that people like and would otherwise generate future products.

Now, occasionally, you can tell a story like that if the IP owner has decided it’s time for the franchise to move on to a new phase in its history. I’ve done those world-changing epics a couple times in the Forgotten Realms. In my experience, if the publisher wants a story like that, they’ll ask a trusted writer with experience in the shared world to write it. You won’t get such a gig if you’re a newcomer.

Now if you’re writing in your own universe, you can do anything you want anytime you want. Although if you’re writing a series, you too may want to be careful about writing something that’s apt to make future stories less interesting or maybe even superfluous altogether.

The second difference is that to do shared-world work, you need to be flexible. You could go to your editor with a great idea and be told, “Sorry, we already have an elf-centric book for this year” or “So-and-so is already going something set in the Red Kingdom.” If that turns out to be true, it won’t do you any good to argue or sulk. You just have to come up with a different idea.

Obviously, if you created the universe of the story and are the only one working there, you won’t have such a problem. I think, though, that it still behooves you to be open to feedback. You don’t want your editor to decide you’re a pain in the ass to work with.

Rorschach Image Sources:

Image (1) RLB’s “brothel line” is actually a tribute to his “Ape of the Day”, a long occurring tradition of RLB on Facebook. Follow him (or on twitter) and you’ll enjoy the flippant posting of “apes” in various media. Image is in public domain.

Image (2) RLB’s “thuggish brothers” is just an abstracted mirror-image of himself

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Aliya Whiteley - Weird Beauty Interview by SE

"They were found in the graveyard, springing from the decaying bodies of the women deep in the ground, and they were found in the woods, spreading themselves like a rug over the wet earth. The Beauty were small at first but they grew and took the best qualities of the dead. They sucked up through the soil all the softness, serenity, hope, and happiness of womankind. They made themselves into a new form, a new north, shaped from the clay of the world and designed only to bring pleasure to man.
But the Beauty knew form the many experiences of the women that had gone before, that men did not always love what was good for them. Men could attack, hurt, main and murder the things that came too fast, too suddenly, like love..."  -- excerpt from ‘The Beauty’  

It is not intuitive to seek beauty in art deemed grotesque/weird, but most authors who produce horror/fantasy actually are usually (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven my strange muses.  These interviews engage contemporary authors & artists on the theme of "Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction."  

Aliya Whiteley has written over thirty novellas and short stories in a range of genres. Her excellent novella The Beauty offers a compact dose of weird fiction in which humanity is evolving into mushrooms. It is entirely unique, but could be described as a mashup of Kafka’s body horror (The Metamorphosis), Golding's social dynamics (Lord of the Flies), and James' infertile dystopia (The Children of Men). “The Beauty” is an action-packed tale saturated with philosophy on "what is beautiful?" and "what is humanity?", a true must-read for those who enjoy intellectual meat (shrooms?) with their adventure fiction. Let’s learn more about Aliya Whiteley and her muses.

  • SEL: You were born in and raised in southern England. Are there fungal horrors in the sea-side town of Ilfracombe that haunt you? Perhaps, you have a different muse from the area.

AW: I don’t remember finding many mushrooms in Ilfracombe, but certainly I grew up feeling that it was filled with strange events, from a ghost in a decaying hotel to the tall, triffid-like plants that grew in an old explorer’s garden. These things have appeared many times in my fiction, and I’m still writing about it now.

The Beauty is set in the Valley of the Rocks, which is a real place close to Ilfracombe with an almost volcanic landscape; it’s a few miles from where I grew up, and I remember visiting it and feeling that its bare, rocky ground was more suited to a horror story than any romantic tale (the most famous novel set in that area is RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor, first published in 1869). Spooky things always seemed to happen in Devon – but perhaps that’s down to my teenage imagination, which liked to find monsters and darkness in every situation.

  • SEL: Early weird fiction masters like Edgar Allen Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft wrote letters and essays on “Beauty,” and they all generally espouse that beauty is not necessarily within art (i.e., a book or poem), but it is the conveyance of a feeling. Is there beauty in horror/weird fiction? Is there beauty in the repulsive?

AW: These are the kind of questions I think about a lot, and haven’t found any answers for! I suspect that beauty is one of the really big concepts in human existence that deserves a lot of interrogation. What is it? When and how does it come into existence? Does something have to be universally considered beautiful to deserve the description? If one person finds it hideous, does it forfeit that idea? Perhaps everyone has different thoughts about this area, as well as having different definitions of beauty.

There’s a moment in The Beauty where the narrator, Nate, comes across a glossy women’s magazine from a time before the death of all women. He doesn’t recognize the pouting figure on the front cover as beautiful because that stylized version of beauty has now disappeared from the world. Nathan then goes on to find things that we would consider grotesque, even horrifying, to be beautiful. It’s all connected to his perception of what life is about. He finds beauty in growth and change. I wonder if uncovering our own personal ideals of beauty rests somewhere in better understanding the concepts that underpin it. So, on those terms: yes! There can be beauty and horror in many things, simultaneously, including weird fiction.
  • SEL: Do you find “The Beauty” repulsive, beautiful, or both?

AW: Do you mean the fungal creatures that erupt in the book? I find them to be both. And also upsetting, and horrible, and challenging, and reassuring. They mean that life goes on, whether we want it to or not. I’m interested in the idea that nature will find a way, but possibly that way doesn’t have to fit any human morality, or concept of beauty. There’s a tension between humanity and nature in the book. So often nature is described by humanity in terms of its beauty to our eyes. I found myself wondering, while writing this book, how much of that is another method of survival. Are we less destructive to those things we find aesthetically pleasing? (Yet more questions I don’t have an answer to! But I think I write to explore these questions, not to answer them.)   

  • SEL: Do you eat mushrooms?

AW: I eat lots of mushrooms, and I’m a bit perturbed when people tell me that I’ve put them off mushrooms! I love them. I make a brilliant mushroom stew with cheese and walnut dumplings. Although I have occasionally found non-edible mushrooms when walking my dog in the nearby forest and felt a bit disturbed by them, if I’m honest. Particularly if they’re yellow and strangely solid, or growing in large clumps to take on monstrous shapes. They are fascinating, aren’t they? I remember reading an article about the mass extinctions of life that have taken place on Earth, and how fungus thrives afterwards, with so much decaying matter to feast upon. I think that must have been lurking in the back of my mind when I started writing the book.
"When [William] told me of his journey, that was how he finished it--he fitted there. I find this to the strangest of expressions--how does one fit in with other people, all edges erased, making a seamless life from the sharp corners of discontent? I don't find anything that fits in such a way.  Certainly not in nature. Nothing real is meant to tessellate like a triangle, top-bottom bottom-top. The sheep will never munch the grass in straight lines."  -- character Nathan speaks in 'The Beauty' 

  •  SEL: Your body of work is eclectic, so you seem to defy the limitations of a single genre. What are our muses then? Where do you “fit”?

AW: I don’t think about fitting anywhere, really. I’m very interested in exploring genre, so many of my books have horror, science fiction, crime or fantasy elements mixed in with commercial or literary approaches to prose. Another way of putting it might be to say that I like to write whatever I want to write, and let other people worry about the definitions when they’re trying to sell it or explain it. That suits me fine.

  • SEL: Voronoi / Rorschach test: What do you see? Ok, bear with me since this is question a game/gimmick of sorts, but it may be fun. I wanted to reinforce your “fitting-in” tessellation-metaphor in a fun way. As a scientist who performs image analysis on data, I apply tessellations on photos to quantify things like particle size, or effective densities of microstructures. I took the liberty of using some Voronoi methods (typically applied on images of dispersed points) on an image you should be familiar with (I grabbed it online).  Figured it would be interesting if you commented or interpreted this abstract version, and described what you see. There is no intention for any real psychological test, but this exercise may also reinforce your feelings on different perspectives.


AW: My first thought was that I was looking at a map of some strange outcropping of land, surrounded by psychedelic seas. It looks like my kind of place! I bet they tell good stories there… My brain also wants to turn it into a sideways view of a face, perhaps a child’s face, with an upturned nose and a chin resting on one finger. Lost in thought. Can an image be a map and a person? And a mushroom, of course.  

**** SIDEBAR: See follow up and image reveal at end. ****

My name is Nathan, just twenty-three and given to the curation of stories. I listen, retain, then polish and release them over the fire at night, when the others hush and lean forward in their desire to hear of the past. They crave romance, particularly when autumn sets in and cold nights await them, and so I speak of Alice, and Bethany, and Sarah, and Val, and other dead women who all once had lustrous hair and never a bad word on their plump limps...Language is changing, like the earth, like the sea. We live in a lonely, fateful flux, outnumbered and outgrown." -- From 'The Beauty'

  •  SEL:   Love of Language: “The Beauty” and “Peace, Pipe” (provided as a pair in the 2018 edition) both had protagonists with storytelling/journalistic roles which affected greater society. Given your degrees in Theatre, Film and Television Studies. any other media Other Arts, you clearly like the subject matter. Your prose is rhythmic and begs to be read aloud like poetry. Explicitly having your characters take on your persona seems telling. What about language and storytelling compels you so?

AW: You’re right that I was influenced by theatre first, and started out by writing stage plays before deciding to switch to novels. It was all about the concept of voice. A lot of my writing is in first person for that reason. I love being able to capture and sustain a person’s voice, and I haven’t found any form that allows me to do that so completely as the novel/novella/short story. It can be an immersion into somebody else’s head, for the writer and the reader, and I find that so powerful. 

Also, the subjectivity of it is so involving. The Beauty was so much fun to write because nobody viewed these mushroom creatures in the same way, and therefore refused to accept them into their own narrative in the way that the storyteller figure wanted to present them. There’s such great tension in that. Which story do we choose to accept about our own pasts and futures? We’re all telling stories and perfecting our own voices all the time by subtly rewriting our own experiences and feelings. That was brilliant territory to explore.

  • SEL:  Beauty and attraction need not be about gender roles, but sexual attraction certainly involves beauty.  There are no women in The Beauty, so you literally switched gender-perspective to write on behalf of your characters.  You could have reversed the situation and had all the men die instead. Please discuss the creative process while switching gender voices, and the role of beauty in relationships.

AW: I don’t plan in advance. I sit down with my notebook and pen and start putting words down on paper. I’d just finished writing a novel with a female protagonist that had a repressed, strict tone to it and so I picked up a fresh notebook and started writing and the first paragraphs of The Beauty, in Nate’s voice, came out. I loved his voice straight away, and I kept going, really enjoying the freedom to let the words flow. 

As I started to get a sense of what the story was about I was nervous about the subject matter and getting the voice right but early on in the process the thought came to me that Nate could barely remember a world without women, so he wasn’t going to hold a lot of set viewpoints about gender. That helped me to let go of the idea that I had to write a man. I wrote a person trying to make sense of new things, changing things, and finding beauty by embracing those changes.

I think it’s really interesting to consider how the book may have been different if I’d imagined all the men dying and the women being left behind. What decisions would they make differently, as individuals, as a group? But Nate’s voice cropped up first, and that’s the voice, and the story, I told. Maybe I’ll try it the other way around some time.

  • SEL: Can you recommend past and/or future works of yours that would appeal to the weird-fiction crowd?

AW: For US readers, my novella The Arrival of Missives will be published by Titan in November 2018. That’s another story which uses the natural world in surprising ways and doesn’t belong to one genre. It’s set in England in 1920, and begins as a coming of age story about a girl who adores her teacher, and becomes – I don’t know, maybe science fiction? The Arrival of Missives is already available in the UK from Unsung Stories.

For UK readers, my new novel The Loosening Skin will be published in October 2018 by Unsung Stories, and that contains similar elements of body horror, but intermingled with a detective story and an examination of love in much the same way as The Beauty examines our concepts of beauty.  

Thanks for the opportunity to give these novels a mention, and to chat about The Beauty! I enjoyed it.

  • SEL: Thank you for writing intellectual fantasy and sharing your creative process! Readers can learn more about her Wordpress.

THE IMAGE REVEAL (click to enlarge):

SEL: After the interview, I provided the below Image Analysis workflow that transformed her portrait into the abstract tile. What did she see in herself?

AW: Look at that! I felt certain you'd used the image of a mushroom as your starting point. I must have mushrooms on the brain...

Aliya Whitely Bio (on Wordpress):

Aliya Whiteley was born in Barnstaple, North Devon, in 1974 and grew up in the seaside town of Ilfracombe which formed the inspiration for many of her stories and novels. She was educated at Ilfracombe College and gained a 2:1 BA (Hons) degree in Theatre, Film and Television Studies from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1995. In 2011 she was awarded an MSc in Library and Information Management by the University of Northumbria; her dissertation involved conducting a case study into the research techniques of modern novelists. She currently lives in West Sussex.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Janeen Webb - Interview by SE

The Dragon's Child - 2018 
by Janeen Webb

It is not intuitive to seek beauty in art deemed grotesque/weird, but most authors who produce horror/fantasy are usually (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven my strange muses.  These interviews engage contemporary authors & artists on the theme of  “Beauty in Weird Fiction"  This one features Janeen Webb, award-winning fantasy author and lover of vintage weird fiction. 

Janeen Webb can spin a a fantastic tale for the young-adult (YA) crowd as well as for adult acolytes of  weird-fiction (see below excerpt from "A Pearl Beyond Price" which involves beach sex with Cthulhu-esque tentacles!). She is clearly haunted by Eros, and compelled by a weird-but-beautiful muse. 

Let us learn a bit from her experienced voice & ear. Some of my favorite lines are highlighted by me, SE. You may never look at red roses the same way ever again!

BIO: Janeen Webb is a multiple award-winning author, editor, and critic who has written or edited ten books and over a hundred essays and stories. She is a recipient of the World Fantasy Award, the Peter MacNamara SF Achievement Award, the Australian Aurealis Award, and is a four-time winner of the Ditmar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, as well as a number of Best of the Year collections. Her own collection, Death at the Blue Elephant, (Ticonderoga Publications) was shortlisted for the 2015 World Fantasy Award. Her longer fiction includes a series of novels for young adult readers, The Sinbad Chronicles, (HarperCollins, Australia). Her latest book is The Dragon's Child, due for June release from PS Publications. She is also co-editor, with Jack Dann, of the influential Australian anthology Dreaming Down-Under. Janeen has also co-authored several non-fiction works with Andrew Enstice. These include Aliens and Savages; The Fantastic Self; and an annotated new edition of Mackays 1895 scientific romance, The Yellow Wave. Janeen is internationally recognized for her critical work in speculative fiction. Her criticism has appeared in most of major journals and standard reference works, as well as in several collections of scholarly articles published in Australia, the USA, and Europe. She was co-editor of Australian Science Fiction Review, and reviews editor for Eidolon. She holds a PhD in literature from the University of Newcastle. Janeen divides her time between Melbourne and a small farm overlooking the sea near Wilsons Promontory, Australia.

1)      Hearing/reciting Weird Beauty

SE: We were introduced on a panel about “The Eternally Difficult (but Fascinating) Writers ” at the 2016World Fantasy Convention in which you, on the fly/unscripted, recited the poetic introduction to E.R.R. Edison’s 1935 Mistress of Mistress. The following year at the next WFC, you participated in a Lord Dunsany reading. There is no doubt that you hold esteem for aural beauty of weird fiction. Many questions emerge from this: How does listening/reciting help convey beauty? With the rise of audible books, hearing fiction is becoming popular and accessible: any perspective on this?  What works do you like to hear, recited by whom?

JW: I do, indeed, love the beauty of words. We are all hard-wired to respond to the inherent sounds that words on the page represent. The music they make determines how we understand meaning. We know, instinctively, how this works: in everyday situations we listen for clues in tone and delivery, and we react accordingly. Even the most neutral words change meaning according to context: an angry person breaks them into short, sharp shocks; politicians use sound bites that snap their jaws at us; loved ones reassure us with softer, longer phrases. In literature, the pace and patterning of words on the page tells us how to read the text, and it often helps to read it aloud. Some poets, like Gerard Manley Hopkins (one of my favourites), are impossible to appreciate if you don't read them aloud. Hopkins is a good case in point here: his subject matter is often very dark, but the music of his writing is superb. As writers, I think we all strive for nuanced beauty.  

Fantasy writers have always used the music of words to great effect. Tolkien, for example, created whole languages to differentiate his characters: compare the mellifluous, silvery tones of Elvish with the harsher language of the Dwarves and the terrifying sounds of the monosyllables that come out of Mordor.  The point I was making on the WFC panels is that "difficult" writers such as Eddison and Dunsany are worth persevering with for the sheer beauty of their language. Hearing works such as Mistress of Mistresses read aloud changes the way we respond to them, and I think that the relaxed process of engaging with talking books is bringing storytellers closer to their audiences once again. We all grew up listening to stories - why wouldn't we want to keep hearing them?

My choice for which vintage voice actor I like best is Richard Burton: I love his old recording of Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, but my all-time favourite is his narration of H.G. Wells' classic SF novel, The War of the Worlds, for Jeff Wayne's extraordinary 1978 musical version. Burton's reading still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I've been driving around listening to it lately because I've just finished writing a new, Australian-flavoured take on War of the Worlds - "Apostles of Mercy" - for an anthology slated for publication towards the end of this year. It was great fun to write.

2)      Erotic Muses

SE: Your collection of weird stories, Death at the Blue Elephant features most every type of tale imaginable: from Lewis Carroll-like fairytales, to contemporary horror (the titular story), to Lovecraftian Mythos, Arthurian legends, historical fantasy, Faustian deals, and Phillip-Dick-like Sci-Fi. Great stuff, with a bent toward mature readers. Especially since most exhibit a dose of eroticism with horrific undertones (i.e., the title story, Niagara Falling, & Red City). Does Eros haunt you? Please discuss blending of beauty/attraction with horror. What scares you? Is it beautiful?

Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare - 1781
JW: Does Eros haunt me? Of course, it does. Seth introduced me as a lover of vintage weird, which is pretty accurate: the description immediately makes me think of Fuseli's famous painting of a grotesque creature crouched on the chest of a woman sprawled in sleep - The Nightmare - made real. My own work is like that. I often literalize the metaphors that haunt the modern psyche - as, for example, in the title story "Death at the Blue Elephant", where Death has chosen to manifest as a goth-chic, stalking her ill-fated clients in a trendy cafe-bar. And this avatar of Death is a very naughty girl.

The two great driving forces of literature are Eros and Thanatos, sex and death, and the one begets the other. It could hardly be otherwise. The two are hopelessly entwined. Repulsion is the underside of attraction, and you can't have one without the other. We prettify basic human instincts, but even the most cliched images of romantic love are saturated with darker sexual truths: if you think about it, that gorgeously symbolic bouquet of red roses is actually a bunch of the sexual organs of plants, severed and tied up with ribbons. What you see is just a question of how you choose to look at it, and whether or not you're prepared to peer beyond the rose-colored lenses of convention.

I'm a fan of the metaphysical poets, with their dark insistence on mortality - think of John Donne, posing in his shroud for a sculptor. I'm a fan of the sheer sex-and-death mayhem that characterises Jacobean tragedy. And I'm a fan of Romantic/Gothic sensibility: the erotic haunting of Seth's question is a particularly Gothic concept, encompassing the attraction of the forbidden, most usually embodied in creatures such as vampires - where sexual embrace also enfolds the false immortality of life-in-death. Living forever is attractive, but at what cost? It's a Frankenstein question, and one that increasingly haunts modern medicine.

My stories engage with the emotional truths we don't often care to acknowledge. What scares me most is routine cruelty camouflaged as mundane behaviour: scratch the surface of perceived reality, look into the shadows - you will find the worst abuses delivered with a bureaucratic smile, glossed over by socially acceptable cliches. And if that doesn't scare you, it should.

3)      Self-reflection

SE: Do you find beauty in your weird fiction? Dissect an example.

JW: That's a hard thing to ask a writer to do: the fiction should speak for itself. But the short answer to your question is "yes" - I do find beauty in writing weird fiction. How could I not? Stories are organic things: I'm not sure any writer really knows exactly how they are formed - I am often surprised by the way they twist and turn, sometimes shocked by the decisions my characters make. I'm reluctant to dissect a story, to take it apart, but I can give you a short "weird-but-beautiful" example from a recent one. I've chosen "A Pearl Beyond Price," partly because it won this year's Ditmar Award (Australia's National F&SF Award), and partly because it was written for the 2017 Cthulhu Deep Down Under Anthology, and it doesn't get much weirder than that.

"A Pearl Beyond Price" is a lyrical horror story - a variation on Beauty and the Beast. My inspiration for it was Hokusai's famous woodblock print, "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" - I saw the original when the British Museum staged an exhibition of Japanese Shunga a few years ago.

My protagonist is a pearl fisher from a remote coastal settlement, a lonely girl who responds to the overtures of a monster - a telepathic creature from the Cthulhu universe that exists in the deeps of the ocean. I've tried to capture the ecstasy that Hokusai portrays, and combined it with the high weirdness of the Lovecraftian mythos (not that Hokusai's image isn't already strange). You can see how the story reads from this excerpt:
"Michiko reclined against a rocky ledge, marveling at her experience. She knew she had not imagined it the ring that now encircled her finger was proof enough of that. She lolled further back, letting the warm wavelets wash over her quivering limbs. It had been an exhausting dive. She pulled off her bandana, freeing her long black hair to tumble about her naked shoulders, its curling strands mingling with the red and brown sea wrack that swirled about her on the sand. She leaned on one elbow, feeling the kiss of the sun on her face, feeling the salt drying on her exposed skin, feeling her nipples harden in the breeze. Her senses stirred. She was still thinking about the monster, still re-living her strange encounter, a meeting that had been frightening and exhilarating all at once.
And as she lay there, the creature that lived beneath the sea put out a long tentacle to find her again. She accepted its touch, pretending not to notice its questing progress up her white thigh .... "

There's nothing even remotely creepy about this lonely girl abandoning herself to an erotic moment on a secluded beach: it's part of the natural world she inhabits, and she accepts the gift of pleasure the monster offers her in the spirit in which it is given. The true horror of her story only unfolds when a ship arrives, and sailors become entangled in her life. The story asks the eternal question: "which is the true monster?"  In this case, is it the man who attacks Michiko, or the hideous creature who defends her? The idea of the monster as hero runs through a lot of modern fantasy, and this story draws upon it in various twisty ways.

You can read "A Pearl Beyond Price" in Cthulhu Deep Down Under, Vol.1, edited by Steve Proposch, Christopher Sequeira, & Bryce Stevens, (IFWG Publishing Australia, Melbourne, 2017).   Cthulhu Deep Down Under Vol 1 has just won the 2018 Australian Dark Shadows Award  for Best Horror Anthology, and is  available online (link).

4)      Muses and Writer’s block?

SE: Death at the Blue Elephant has explicit call-outs to artists, including “The Sculptor’s Wife” in which a sculptor literally carves his wife from stone, and Blake’s Angel” has a creative writer craft listens to angels sing to overcome writer’s block. Blake also wrote while being naked. For the sake of keeping the interview interesting, can you confirm that you take after Blake? As in: do you listen to angels, somehow, and have ways to overcome writers block?

Death at the Blue Elephant
JW: Writing naked? In this climate? I don't think so. But if you look beyond the inconveniences of physicality, the writing process strips us all bare to the soul, so in that sense, yes, we are all writing naked. William Blake just actualized the metaphor, taking tea naked in the garden with the archangel Gabriel. It's a wonderful image of creativity.

Ursula Le Guin once said that "those who refuse to believe in dragons are often eaten by them - from the inside." It's the same with angels. And all the creatures from all the mythologies that speak to us in the depths of our souls. Refuse to listen to them at your peril - they'll eat you alive.

Writer's block is a tricky thing. It seems to happen when the story isn't holding together, or when I'm not! But I'm always working on multiple projects, so my way of dealing with it is to put the piece aside and work on something else until I figure out what the problem is. Sometimes this takes quite a while - one of my YA protagonists was stuck in a swamp on the Nile delta for ages till I found a way to get her out again. I'm sure she was pleased to move on - I certainly was.

I'm one of those authors who doesn't write in a straight line from beginning to end - I often write dramatic sequences, or tease out subplots, then stitch all the pieces together later - I always know how my stories will end, but rarely how they'll get there, so  I just work away at different bits until the thing comes clear. Or not. Not everything works. Some things end up in the "maybe later, maybe never" file. It's the nature of the writing beast.

5)      New Works

SE: Your Novella, The Dragon's Child, is slated for release about now (June 2018 via PS Australia). Please tell us about it.

JW: I really enjoyed writing The Dragon's Child. Here's what it says on the cover:

Meet the shapeshifting dragons of Hong Kong. Adept at passing for human, they are the kind of dragons you'd find at a Gatsby party - charming, sophisticated, glamorous, outrageously wealthy - and utterly ruthless. Nothing, it seems, can challenge their privileged lives - until Lady Feng leaves one of her eggs to be raised by human foster parents in a remote mountain village. The dragon child hatches. Born with dragon power, raised with human emotion, this child is trouble. And his powers are growing...

PS Publishing have made this a fabulous hardcover package: beautiful cover art by Greg Bridges, wonderful design and layout by Michael Smith - even the endpapers are golden dragon scales. I've never looked so good in print! Thanks, guys.

The Dragon's Child - 2018 by Janeen Webb
The Dragon's Child is a seriously different take on the eternal struggle between humanity and dragon kind.  I've moved the age-old conflict from the battlefield to the board room. A cave full of glittering treasure is just so old fashioned: why would modern dragons bother collecting mere gold and gems if they can own banks and casinos? Or control multinational corporations? Our current international trade structure of perpetual wealth creation is a dragon's dream - and clearly, the Dragons are in control, guarding their positions as jealously as they ever protected their ancient hoards. I like the idea that all the cold-blooded monetary decisions are being made by actual reptiles - it makes a certain sense, don't you think? And the humans don't even know they are there - how could we? Compared with dragons, humans are such a short-lived species, and our greed makes us so very vulnerable to flattery, bribery, corruption, and judiciously applied blackmail.

My shapeshifting Hong Kong business dragons are a fusion of east and west, a mix of myth and fable and fairytale for the modern world. And they are gorgeous! If Faberge's exquisitely crafted eggs were to hatch, my dragons are what would emerge: the child of the title is Gold-Jade, his sister is Ruby-Gold, his cousin is Amethyst-Jade, and so on. The matriarch of the dynasty, the eminently despisable Lady Feng, is pure gold, scales and eyes; but her breeding partner is the Jade-Ruby dragon, a huge male with jade green scales and a ruby red underbelly. You get the idea: they are beautiful, and deadly. The Dragon's Child is a story of revenge, greed, and retribution - a deliberate blend of fable and dynastic thriller. And yes, I have already written a second book: A Dynasty of Dragons (currently with my agent). The next one is already haunting me, waiting to hatch. Dragons are such demanding creatures!

The Dragon's Child is available online at:

You can read a sneak preview at: 

6)      Artistic Team

SE: Writing is often thought of as a solo art, unlike movie production which requires a team and in which “creative differences” often plagues production. You and Jack Dann seemed to partner well and gather awards, especially for anthologies on dreaming: i.e.,  Dreaming Down Under and Dreaming in the Dark.  What’s your take on creating solo art versus team projects, and shared muses?

JW: We all have that image in our minds, don't we? The romantic figure of the lonely writer
toiling away alone, penning a masterpiece in a cobwebbed garret. But writing is a collaborative art. A writer requires a whole complex process of editing, printing, distribution and so on to reach an audience - there are a lot of people involved in getting a book out. It's not always a comfortable experience for the writer - Samuel R Delaney famously remarked that the role of an editor was to insert microdisimprovements in the text - but nevertheless, the process is there. The advent of Indie publishing circumvents some of the steps for some writers, but the physical issues of printing, distribution, and so on still require the involvement of others. And we shouldn't forget the huge army of IT professionals who create and provide the platforms that make possible our e-books and online presence.

Most of my collaborative works have been non-fiction: I've co-authored several books with fellow literary historian Andrew Enstice. For me, collaboration on non-fiction is much less confronting than co-writing fiction because it allows a certain distance between the writer and the subject matter. Collaboration on anthologies works in much the same way, in that the editors are collecting and weaving together the stories of other writers, and so they have space to step back from the works themselves. My collaboration with Jack Dann on the ground-breaking Dreaming Down-Under anthology was a huge undertaking, but our combination of skills proved very successful - we won a lot of awards, and kick-started a lot of Australian careers - so it's something we can be proud of. (The Dreaming of the title refers to the idea that writing and reading fiction is a kind of waking dream.)
Collaboration between writers on creative manuscripts is a different thing, and the process is not always immediately apparent to the reader - a good case in point would be Ezra Pound's silent editing of TS Eliot's The Wasteland to produce the poem in its final form. But when there are two (or more) writers overtly working on fiction together, when we all have skin in the game, things can get very gnarly! I'm a relative newcomer to writing fiction, and I'd only published a couple of stories before I tried a collaboration with Jack Dann: it was OMNI Magazine's Keith Ferrell who suggested we write together for his Japanese Futures anthology. Jack enjoys collaborating: he has published a lot of co-authored works, and he's amazingly good at it. But for me it was an incredibly steep learning curve. The stories were very successful - "Niagara Falling" is still being reprinted - but we were barely on speaking terms by the time we'd finished it. A case, perhaps, of angst creating art, but at the time I felt it wasn't for me, and I went back to writing solo fiction.

Years later, I'm only just trying fictional collaboration again, but in a very different way. Under the guidance of Clio, muse of history, I've been working with Andrew Enstice once more - this time on a counterfactual history in novel form, The City of the Sun, where the facts are true, but the outcomes are different. This is history with a twist, a story of a world that might have been if we had persevered with solar energy - which was perfectly possible, given that successful solar-powered steam engines were invented in the 1870s (and the biggest solar array in the world was built in Egypt in 1913 - just in time to be destroyed in World War I). So: do things really have to be as they are? Of course not. City of the Sun is a future you'll wish we'd had. Stay tuned...

And so, when all's said and done, my take on solo versus team art is positive. It's always challenging to write with another author, and that, ultimately, is a productive - if sometimes painful - process for all concerned. I'm sticking with it.

7)      Other Arts

SE: Beyond writing, do you practice other arts (music, drawing, etc.)? If so, can we share any examples online (mp3’s, images, etc.). Otherwise, can you discuss other art/artists that inspire you?

JW: Gardening! One of my current passions is landscape gardening - another collaborative art. I have a 4 acre garden in a stunning part of the world, so I have plenty to work with: I've been planting for wildlife as well as for visual and seasonal effect, and I now co-habit with an extraordinary diversity of birds and animals. Apart from occasional territorial disputes - I've needed, for example, to establish firm boundaries with my resident wombat - things are reasonably harmonious.

[SE Sidebar: there is an interesting/disturbing connection between gardening and the analogy above for bouquets of severed genitalia! Further inquiry has revealed that JW grows a formal rose garden and keeps a vase on her desk for her beautiful victims--to inspire writing.]

Gardening is a four-dimensional art form, truly existing in a space-time continuum. It draws on three dimensional physical space to be created and understood, it involves all the senses, but it also requires the fourth dimension - time. Gardens are never fixed: they change constantly, they mature, and the creator must plan for future growth as well as for seasonality.

In that sense, gardening is very like writing: the author creates the blueprint from which stories may emerge into the world.  A bulb - say a tulip or a daffodil - is a storage matrix for a set of coded DNA instructions which lie dormant until the right circumstances are met - soil, water, season, etc -  at which point a plant can emerge and flower before it dies back to dormancy. In much the same way, printed words on a page exist physically, but they are only ever symbolic representations, the DNA matrix of meaning from which a reader can construct the story - the words lie dormant until the reader decodes them, at which point the story comes alive for the time it is being read or heard. It can exist, unread, for unlimited time, and bloom afresh when it is rediscovered and read anew.

Gosh! I think I've just created a new literary theory: "Bulb Theory". That was unexpected. I wonder if it will catch on?

8)    SE: You have a love for travelling – do you follow any geographic muse?

JW: I love airports - and docks, and railway stations - all the places that give me a sense of going somewhere new. But how to choose from all those exotic possibilities scrolling down the departure screens? Being of a literary turn of mind, I follow the stories: I often set out to track down the physical locations embedded in myths, legends and folktales. I've been learning how to read landscape - it's surprisingly complex.

I travel around with my rather battered paperback copy of the Penguin Atlas of the Ancient World, invaluable for identifying what places used to be called. How else, for example, could a traveller guess that Halicarnassus (site of the Necropolis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) is now the Turkish tourist resort of Bodrum? The issues are not always just a case of re-naming - geography also changes over time, as for example, the old port city of Ephesus (where the ruins of the famous Temple of Artemis still stand) is now several miles inland. Still, it was fun to follow Odysseus's route from Troy to Ithaca: the distances between the islands are surprisingly short - at least from an Australian perspective.

Like most travellers, I delight in the opportunities that sometimes just pop up - I accepted serendipitous invitations that led me into the ruins of King Minos' palace on Crete, into Charlemagne's tomb in Aachen, Germany, and into Philip of Macedon's tomb outside Thessaloniki; I've stayed in Kafka's room in Vienna, and in Dorothy Parker's Algonquin Hotel in New York; I've visited the Seven Sleepers Den in rural Turkey and the  cave of Brahma high up in the Himalayas, near Kulu. But the best finds are not always quite so hard to get to: I was absolutely delighted to track down Thomas the Rhymer's famous crossroads near the Roman hill fort of Trimontium in the Scottish lowlands, to dine in the pub at Queensferry on the Firth of Forth where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped, and to walk the hills of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, novel in hand.

I hope to keep following the literary muse for a long time yet: I have such a lot to learn.

9) SE: Any comments on your Sinbad series (I have a Sword & Sorcery following too)  

JW: My Young Adult series, The Sinbad Chronicles (HarperCollins) begins when Cynthia Lee Mariner, a girl who loves windsurfing, finds a strange bottle on the shore of Redhead Beach and releases a gorgeous genie - King Sinbad - who grants her the traditional three wishes. The first book, Sailing to Atlantis,  takes us firstly to the magic isles, where Sinbad frees the very grumpy magic carpet who becomes Cyn's trusted companion on her journeys to Atlantis and Xanadu. The second book, The Silken Road to Samarkand, follows Cyn's hair raising adventures as she journeys with Carpet to Circe's Island to rescue her friend Megan, before they follow the fabled Silk Road to the ancient city of Samarkand.

These books have been out of print for a while now (though a few are still available) but I've had so many requests about "what happens next" that I've just written a third book, Flying to Babylon. I'm hoping this will mean the full trilogy will be available, but I don't have a publisher for it yet. Fingers crossed.

Answers Copyright Janeen Webb, June 2018.